The Holy Innocents: The Iconography

December 28

The Holy Innocents are the children executed at Herod's order in Matthew 2:16-18. Some images of the Holy Innocents depict the slaughter alone (example), but more often Herod is prominently featured, crowned and sitting enthroned on a dais and pointing with his right hand to the slaughter he has ordered. Indeed, one panel in Burgos puts him in the center, occupying a good half of the image. The Golden Legend's account also spends a good deal less time on the innocents than on Herod, his family, and his subsequent troubles.

Herod is alone in the painting above, but more often advisers and/or soldiers stand with him observing the slaughter. The scene can also include women of the court. In this example they stand with him high above the fray. In this one they stand calmly by in their rich mantles and crowns, one of them holding her own child safe in her arms (a future Herod, most likely). Another figure that can be included is the prophet Jeremiah, as in the first picture at right. Matthew says that the massacre fulfills the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:15, "A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not."

Few images of the slaughter spare the blood and horror, but the one at Trogir Cathedral substitutes a visual metonymy: we see only the souls of the innocents, pictured as swaddled babies carried aloft by angels. I have not seen other examples, so it may be an idiosyncratic choice arising from the west portal's overall iconographic program (frightening images below, reassuring images above). The trope may have been suggested by images such as the mosaic in the baptistery at St. Marks, Venice, where the souls of the deceased are pictured as swaddled babies carried to Heaven by their guardian angels (Vio, 155).

In scripture Jesus escapes the slaughter because St. Joseph has been warned in a dream to take him to Egypt. Some images put the escaping family in the background example.

The infant John the Baptist also escaped the massacre. The Protevangelium of James (¶¶22b-23) explains that His mother Elizabeth hid with him in a mountain cave. When his father Zacharias refused to reveal the child's location, Herod had him killed. The episode is pictured mostly in Orthodox images (example).

Prepared in 2016 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University


Sano di Pietro, The Massacre of the Innocents, 1470. See the description page.

MATTHEW 2:16-18: Then Herod perceiving that he was deluded by the wise men, was exceeding angry; and sending killed all the men children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the borders thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremias the prophet, saying: A voice in Rama was heard, lamentation and great mourning; Rachel bewailing her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.


Jeremiah holds the scroll with his prophecy of the massacre at the right of this detail from the façade of Orvieto Cathedral – See the description page

The device of putting Herod on a throne and having him point toward the massacre scene goes back to at least the 4th century, as in this sarcophagus. See the description page.


  • 5th century: Detail in the apse mosaic at Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome.
  • FROM THE BYZANTINE GUIDE TO PAINTING: Massacre of the Innocents. A city. Herod seated on a throne; two soldiers are near him. In the foreground, many other soldiers with a standard. Other towns upon the mountains with women in them carrying infants; others fly hiding them behind them, and striving with their hands to save them from the soldiers. Other women are seen seated in lamentation by the dead bodies of their children. In other parts soldiers tear the children from their mothers' arms, others stab them with their swords or hew them in pieces, or cut off their heads. A crowd of children stretched bleeding upon the earth. Some in their swaddling clothes, others with their dresses. Elizabeth carries the Harbinger, a little infant, and flies, looking behind her; she is pursued by a soldier with drawn sword. A rock, mighty as a mountain, splits open to receive her. (Didron II, 901)




    • Golden Legend #10: html or pdf
    • Episode in the Protevangelium of James